From Israeli prison, Barghouti mulls presidency bid, turning up heat on Abbas

Abbas confidant Hussein al-Sheikh visits popular former terror chief in jail, where he’s serving multiple life terms for murder, in reported attempt to convince him not to run

Fatah terror chief Marwan Barghouti, serving five life terms for murder during the Second Intifada, is escorted by Israeli police into Jerusalem's Magistrate Court to testify as part of a US civil lawsuit against the Palestinian leadership, in January 2012. (Flash90)
Fatah terror chief Marwan Barghouti, serving five life terms for murder during the Second Intifada, is escorted by Israeli police into Jerusalem's Magistrate Court to testify as part of a US civil lawsuit against the Palestinian leadership, in January 2012. (Flash90)

Security prisoner Marwan Barghouti, widely seen as a rival to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is considering running in the scheduled Palestinian presidential elections, a close associate of his confirmed Thursday.

“Our comrade Marwan is considering the possibility, but he has not yet made a decision either way,” former Palestinian legislator Qaddura Fares said in a phone call.

Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role planning deadly terror attacks against Israelis in the Second Intifada, is popular among Palestinians and is widely seen as a possible successor to Abbas.

According to opinion polling, the aging PA leader — who is his Fatah movement’s presumptive nominee — would likely lose to Barghouti in a faceoff.

Senior Palestinian official Hussein al-Sheikh, a close Abbas confidant, visited Barghouti on Thursday to discuss the upcoming Palestinian elections. According to Hebrew media reports, al-Sheikh sought to ask him to avoid nominating himself for the presidency.

Palestinians are scheduled to head to legislative elections on May 22 followed by presidential elections on July 31. Senior Palestinian officials — including representatives from Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip — concluded an election agreement this week at a summit in Cairo.

Many observers have expressed skepticism that the votes will be held. Palestinians have not held national elections since 2006, despite numerous promises by their leadership.

Both Barghouti and Abbas are members of the Fatah movement, which dominates the Palestinian Authority. But Fatah has been riddled with internal divisions for decades, and Abbas and Barghouti have emerged as reflecting two separate poles in Palestinian politics.

Marwan Barghouti, file photo (Flash90)

Many Palestinians draw unfavorable comparisons between the security prisoner and the 86-year-old Abbas. The Palestinian Authority is widely seen as corrupt and ineffectual by many Palestinians; Ramallah is also regularly assailed for its coordination with Israel. Opinion polls consistently find a majority of Palestinians demand the PA leader’s resignation.

In a 2014 letter from prison, Barghouti said that Palestinians should “support total resistance and the rifle.” Barghouti himself was convicted and sentenced by an Israeli court in 2004 for directing two shootings and a bombing that killed five Israelis.

“There must be a reconsideration of the choice of resistance as the shortest path to extinguishing the occupation and achieving freedom,” Barghouti wrote.

According to a December survey by the Palestinian Center for Survey and Polling Research, if Barghouti were to form an independent list, it would receive 25% of the vote, while only 19% said they would vote for the main Fatah list. Asked to pick from a list of potential Abbas successors, Barghouti came first with 37 percent.

Al-Sheikh’s office issued a statement Thursday confirming his visit to Barghouti, although a spokesperson could not be reached for further comment as to whether the PA official sought to convince the jailed popular leader not to run.

“I visited brother Marwan Barghouti, carrying with me a message and greetings from President Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah Central Committee,” Al-Sheikh said in the statement.

According to al-Sheikh’s office, the two discussed the latest political developments in the international and regional arenas, the outcome of the intra-Palestinian national dialogue and the ongoing preparations to hold the legislative and presidential elections.

“There is a need to rise above wounds, factional interests and selfishness, and to create a single unified list for the Fatah movement, without exclusion or marginalization,” Barghouti said, according to the statement from al-Sheikh’s office.

Palestinians pass by a mural depicting late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Marwan Barghouti at the Qalandia checkpoint on July 5, 2012. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rumors have swirled in recent weeks that Barghouti might make a run for the presidential elections, should they take place.

Barghouti was elected as a Fatah member of the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996. He announced his intention to run independently as a presidential candidate in 2005 but later withdrew his candidacy. That withdrawal was also said to come after pressure from officials in the name of party unity.

During the 2006 legislative elections, Barghouti briefly started a new Fatah breakaway party known as al-Mustaqbal. The party’s list included Fares, current Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub, and former Gaza security chief Mohammad Dahlan.

The party wound up rejoining Fatah before the elections, once the main faction agreed to submit a revised list of candidates that would move Barghouti’s associates into positions of power.

In his conversation with The Times of Israel, Fares warned that without “true democracy” in Fatah, the movement would likely fail to defeat its opponents in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

“We must hold internal elections in Fatah, in which all the cadres participate,” Fares said.

In 2006, Fatah was popular but deeply divided: Fatah candidates competed against one another in district after district. Its primary rival, Hamas, was well-organized and exercised tight internal discipline.

While Hamas beat Fatah by only 3% in the overall popular vote, the Islamist movement took 74 out of 132 seats in the Palestinian legislative parliament to Fatah’s 45.

The legislative elections, if they come to pass at all, will be conducted according to a national vote, in which seats will be allocated in proportion to the popular vote. The concession is likely to assuage some concerns about Fatah’s internal divides.

“We are facing a very strong opponent — Hamas — and everyone wants to see a united Fatah. If those in the leadership try and impose a weak list from on high, that list will fall,” predicted Fares.

Palestinian Authority Minister Kadoura Fares, right, and Fadwa Barghouti, the wife of jailed Palestinian Second Intifada leader Marwan Barghouti, attend a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Friday, Nov. 26, 2004. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Intelligence chiefs from Egypt and Jordan visited Ramallah last month. According to Israeli media, the two officials urged Abbas to do everything in his power to ensure Fatah ran in the elections with a single, unified list of candidates.

Barghouti is far from the only potential spoiler from within Fatah in the scheduled elections. Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief who currently resides in the United Arab Emirates, is also rumored to be attempting a comeback.

A spokesperson for Dahlan’s Democratic Reform Current suggested in a phone call with The Times of Israel on Tuesday that their faction and Barghouti’s associates were holding preliminary talks on a potential alliance.

“We’ve held discussions — not negotiations, discussions — with Barghouti’s faction, and we’re open to dealing with all sides in the upcoming elections,” said Dimitri Diliani, a spokesperson for the Democratic Reform Current.

Fares, however, appeared to rule out a merger with Dahlan’s faction in the upcoming legislative elections.

“We’re talking about unity within Fatah, not with Dahlan and others who have left the organization,” Fares said.

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